Baltimore Higher Ed Institutions Fight to Restore the City - Higher Education
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Baltimore Higher Ed Institutions Fight to Restore the City

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by Lekan Oguntoyinbo

In the wake of the unrest in Baltimore this April, officials at Johns Hopkins University announced they would hire 300 Baltimore youth—up from 100 the previous year—for the city’s annual summer jobs program. ­The youth, who range in age from 15 to 21, will work at the university, the university’s hospital and the university’s health system this summer.

Johns Hopkins has long been an active participant in the city’s summer employment program, which provides jobs to thousands of young people.

­The summer jobs program is just one of many steps the university has taken to help the city in the long, arduous task of recovering from the tumult that was triggered by the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed Black man who died in police custody last April.

Johns Hopkins is taking steps to expand partnerships with Baltimore schools. ­The university is also working with community partners to create more employment opportunities for ex-convicts under its ex-offender hiring program.

“We also recognize, and must acknowledge, the frustration felt in communities across this country, born of continuing racial disparities in education, employment, and criminal justice,” Johns Hopkins President Ronald Daniels said in an email to faculty, staff and students the day after the disturbances began. “ … Our university takes seriously the opportunity and obligation of our role as an anchor institution within Baltimore.

But as the events of the past week remind us, there is more to do.”

Mending the city

Johns Hopkins is just one of several higher education institutions in the Baltimore area that are working with the city and its residents to recover from its first uprising in nearly 50 years.

­The efforts of the colleges and universities run the gamut, from students and faculty literally helping to clean up the city by picking up trash to conferences and meetings with community leaders, to brainstorming on how to address some of the core problems of the unrest to collaborative artistic endeavors.

In the days following the riots, Morgan State University students worked to clean parts of the city most affected by the disturbances. Students from Coppin State University, which is located near an area greatly affected by the disturbances, helped clean up as well.

Faculty and students from many area colleges participated in demonstrations; organized events to keep children occupied while their schools stayed closed; and, in some cases, even participated in events to help feed the children.

­The University of Baltimore School of Law has offered to assist the Baltimore City Police Department to train officers on issues such as use of force and Fourth Amendment law, according to a university spokesperson.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s history department worked with students to create a website that includes original content and that documents history in the days surrounding Gray’s death. University officials say the goal is to provide a historical record of diverse perspectives from the people whose lives were directly impacted by the events.

The university’s American studies department also worked with students to produce oral histories in Baltimore’s Station North and Greektown neighborhoods as part of a spring semester-long project, according to university officials. Part of the project detailed the community response around the unrest in Baltimore following Gray’s death.

In the fall, UMBC will host the “Imagining America” conference in partnership with the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

The aim of the conference is to discuss best practices for the arts and humanities to have a positive impact on society using vehicles such as civic engagement. Organizers say many conference sessions will focus specifically on Baltimore and address topics such as race, inequality and community-based approaches to spur collective action.

“Part of our commitment in doing that was about how we could use this conference to develop the work in Baltimore,” says Dr. Beverly Bickel, a clinical associate professor in the Language, Literacy and Culture Doctoral Program at UMBC. “We want to use it as an organizing process to strengthen the arts community [in] Baltimore.”

Representatives of many of the schools say they are trying to position themselves as partners as the city takes steps to recover from the scars of the uprising.

“We [are] conscious about referring and deferring to our community partners as opposed to just showing up and saying, ‘Here is what we have to offer,’” says Karen Stults, director of community engagement at MICA.

College/community ties

The colleges’ involvement with the community dates back to long before the Gray disturbances.

Many colleges have had longstanding relationships with pockets of the community in areas such as education, youth mentoring and personal empowerment through the use of tools like legal clinics and commerce. Colleges such as the University of Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University say that they are striving to do more business with the city and minority- and women-owned businesses.

Morgan State University spokesman Clint Coleman says his institution has the “Community Mile,” a one-mile radius of the city that it tries to assist with its resources in areas including health, education, policing and housing.

“We are meeting neighbors and talking to them about their issues,” Coleman says. “We are getting the community involved in schools in the area. We try to have some impact on pride. Morgan State has set up a community garden across the street from the campus. It’s [a] borderline food desert in that area. We are teaching them to grow their own food and showing that it can be fun and advantageous.

“Morgan views itself as a premier public urban research institution. We are a part of this community and we think we can be a part of the solution.” Stults says the disturbances underscored the importance of the colleges’ work in the community.

“I feel like what the Freddie Gray incident did was sharpen our focus on the need for dialogue and how [we] can use art and design to create opportunities for students and pathways for people that feel they have a dead end,” she notes.

Lee Boot, an affiliate associate professor in UMBC’s visual art department, says that he and some of his colleagues are cautious about not appearing as to have all the answers.

“These issues are real[ly] complicated. The whole idea that [the] university alone is [the] purveyor of knowledge is insane,” he says.

“And we’re trying to level that. Another thing that came up is that Baltimore has to take its stories back. … An opportunity that comes out of what happened in April is that now [there is] a wider understanding that those events were results of things that had happened before. We’re trying to say [that] this is not a bunch of bad players, but results of decisions we have made. That’s a line of thought most people are not interested in listening to most of the time.”

Adds Dr. Denise Meringolo, an associate professor of history at UMBC, who is teaching a public history class: “The thing that’s most important for me [is] that it’s broadly collaborative and puts [the] needs and interests of community first.

“At this point this is a collection project. … Healing at this time feels like skipping over their pain. I think we’ve got to stop skipping over the pain, so people don’t go from trauma to forgiveness and skip over the hard work. I feel like this [is] the beginning of the hard work.”